PANTHERS PRIMED TO REDRESS FINALS BALANCE AGAINST KEAS
Few clubs in the world of rugby league would be as familiar with one another as Hornby Panthers and Linwood Keas.
The archrivals have met almost 30 times in the past eight seasons, while they are preparing to square off in the Pat Smith Trophy Challenge for the seventh time in eight years at Ngā Puna Wai on Sunday.
Overall the results have been relatively evenly shared, but the Keas have enjoyed the lion’s share of success at this time of the year, winning five of the teams’ six Grand Finals – and nine of 11 finals matches – since 2016. After four consecutive heart-breakers from 2016-19 and missing out on Grand Final Day in 2020, the Panthers carved out an epic drought-breaking victory in 2021 to end the Keas’ five-year reign.
Just seconds away from back-to-back glory in the 2022 Grand Final, Hornby was stunned by a last-minute Linwood try in a 34-30 defeat. And after chalking up impressive wins in their last two regular-season games against the Keas to finish four points clear at the top of the table, the big-match pain returned for the Panthers in a last-gasp 21-20 loss to the defending champs at Leslie Park in the major semi-final.
Hornby coach Jed Lawrie contends his charges have already put their latest post-season disappointment at the hands of Linwood behind them.
“The boys have been good, they were disappointed after losing (the major semi) against Linwood but definitely a better feeling after a more hardworking effort and a win against Halswell on Saturday,” Lawrie says.
“We were a bit poor in some effort areas against Linwood. In a game like that, you pride yourself on the little efforts you put in and we were short in a few of them. But that’s history now, we get another opportunity on Sunday.”
For the third straight year, the Panthers were pitched into a do-or-die preliminary final against the Hornets to earn their place in the decider – and a gritty 26-12 win, after the Hornets had fought back from 14-0 down to cut the deficit to two points, shapes as a solid lead-in to their Keas rematch.
“We started well, had a middle period where we didn’t complete enough sets and didn’t turn the ball over in a good spot,” Lawrie admits.
“But I’m pretty pleased with the way we finished and closed the game out. Tevin Arona’s kicking game and game management was pretty tidy at the end of that.”
Returning to the Panthers jersey mid-season, well-travelled playmaker Arona has revelled in his role as the team’s linchpin and looms as a key figure in his first CRL Grand Final since 2016.
“Tevin’s come in and is doing an awesome job,” Lawrie enthuses.
“This is the last one for him – after the Cook Islands World Cup (campaign in 2022) he wanted to finish with a year at Hornby and it’s the most invested I’ve ever seen him in a year of footy, he’s just into everything and leading us around.
“It gives Muipu (Nati) the freedom to be our running half.”
Grand Final experience and continuity shapes as key advantage for the Panthers. Forwards Corey Lawrie and James Baxendale are both lining up in an unprecedented 12th premiership decider – Lawrie played his first Grand Final in 2001, Baxendale in 2005 – while veteran back Dene Grace returned to the first-grade side for the injured Vaione Siaki last week and starred in the win over the Hornets.
Just two players will be featuring in their first Pat Smith Trophy Challenge: fullback Ngaheke Nepata, who has made a remarkable recovery from a broken leg suffered earlier this year, and engine-room tyro Jaedon Wellington.
“Corey and ‘Baxy’ always lead from the front, their work ethic is always strong and they’ve led us well the last few weeks – even in that Linwood (semi-final) they were a couple of our standouts,” coach Lawrie says.
“It’s the first time for a while we’ve only got a couple of boys playing in their first Grand Final, we’ve usually had six or seven with player turnover.”
SENZ Canterbury Bulls coach Lawrie, in charge of the Panthers since 2016 (and after a couple of rescinded retirements from the role), is keeping it simple in the lead-up to his seventh Grand Final at the helm of his beloved club.
The major semi cliff-hanger has ensured complacency won’t be an issue as they aim to pen a redemption tale in this latest chapter of an extraordinary rivalry narrative.
“Hornby and Linwood, there’s not much splitting the teams. It’s up to us to be smart in where we turn over the ball and the effort areas; if we’re strong in those, everything else takes care of itself.
“You can’t underestimate Linwood – I think a few people wrote them off this year, but as you’ve seen they’re straight into another Grand Final. They’re a premiership-winning team, so we’ve got to be at our best.”